(C) Copyright 1970 Robert Gordon Delahoy
Speed Merbein 1917
Sometimes is seemed the mice were a grey shadow over the whole land, and
day after day they filled our kerosene tin traps, and for every one we buried
there seemed to be a dozen more.
Almost in desperation Harry said we would have to write and suggest to Bill he cut short his holiday and come home to help.
"But we can't let Mother come back. We'll have to re-paper the whole house before that."
By now you could see from one end of the house to the other, with only a few tattered strips of wall between.
"I just don't know," said Harry. "What's a man to do? You can't go putting up new walls while the plague's still with us, and I wouldn't know that it's every going to end."
Perhaps it wouldn't. It was hard to remember a time without them now, and they were so bad they even got into bed with you at night. And if that was not bad enough, when you did get to sleep they would wake you by sitting on the pillow and running their paws through your hair. It became second nature to wake, and without thought, reach up, grab a mouse in each hand, crush them and fling the limp bodies away on the floor.
"Listen, I'm going to write to Bill," Harry said, and on the Monday Fisher and I drove into Speed to collect the mail and post Harry's letter.
Jack Thrower saw us arrive and came over to say our new stump plough had arrived and was across at the station. "Come over and look at it boys."
We walked across to the station with him, and jove, there it was, our gleaming, new, seven furrow, stump jump mouldboard plough.
Several other farmers had gathered around it, some of them not too sure.
"It might be alright. Then again, I dunno, I've got me doubts."
Mr Gordon Speed, the pioneer of the town which bore his name, considered it from several angles. "Well this has always been country you could only use a disc in, but a mouldboard is preferable if it will work over stumps. You'll get a more even bottom in your soil for the seed bed, and we have to learn to make a better seed bed for the wheat. This just might be the answer."
Mr Thrower was wasting no time in telling the farmers it was time to put their orders in. "Want to hurry or you'll miss out on delivery for this season. They can only turn out a limited number each year, and there's plenty want them."
"When can we collect the plough Mr Thrower?"
"Aw, bring in a couple of horses and collect her any time you like Bob. I've got another one coming up next week."
Jove, I thought. They must be selling well.
"Bob! Look!" Fisher cried, and pointed to the wheat stacks.
These were great stacks of bagged wheat roofed with iron with hessian down the sides to protect the grain from weather until rail trucks were available to shift it to Melbourne for shipping to England. But the big stack had been undermined by the mice, and had fallen right out across the railway lines.
Mr Thrower was pretty upset. He was the government agent for the wheat pool. It meant a big job now to clean and re- bag so much wheat, and he would have to make some protection against the mice.
The German submarine blockade was still sinking too many Allied ships, and this wheat was sorely needed in England by those who were taking the brunt of the German war machine's onslaught.
That very day the papers carried the description of an attack by German soldiers in France, and the correspondent's description of the grey hordes of German soldiers. Somehow it was a parallel with the grey hordes of mice here amongst the wheat farms of the Mallee, pouring in, wave upon wave, bent on destruction of all they came across.
Somehow the gleaming new stump jump plough stood as a symbol of sanity amongst the destruction. The implement men would hammer from their swords when humanity beat the scourge of war, and peace returned to earth.
"Come on Bob." Fisher touched my elbow. "We better be getting home."
We went back to the buggy and collected Harry's letter, posting it and taking the mail which had arrived for us. Then Harry's list to be purchased at the store, and some hot meat pies to eat on the way home.
Back at the stable we unyoked the ponies and rubbed them down, then took the groceries and mail up to the house.
Harry had seen us arrive and came up from the dam.
"The new plough's arrived Harry. It's a beauty! Lot of blokes down there having a look at it."
"The side fell out of the big wheat stack while we were there Harry, While Bob and I were looking at the plough. Mice must have got at it."
"Ah .." Harry was too fed up with mice to make any further comment, and took the mail and began to sort through it.
Up on the side verandah Rowdy was asleep with Joey, and if you ignored the mice, life was as peaceful as it could be on that warm January day as we sat down to a cup of tea and the fresh buttered scones Harry had made while we were away.
"I'll ride over to Mr Anderson's one of these days and see if he will come over and repaper the house, if these mice ever go away. Anyway, if Bill comes home next week we can start on a paddock ready for next year with the new plough."
"This time of year?"
"Yeah. Fallowing. Plough it up now and after every rain you'll have moisture you can conserve for near on twelve months. Maybe we can even buy a few sheep to keep the weeds down."
Fisher's eyes lit up. "Gee Harry, can I have a go at shearing them?"
"Well, you won't catch me doing it," Harry said, opening a letter from Mother and glancing through it. "Mmmmm. Mother sounds pretty upset about Tom Burns. Wants to know if we've heard anything of Mary." He looked up. "Did you remember to post my letter? Mother wants to know if she should come back."
"We posted it alright," Fisher assured him.
Harry folded the letter away. "It's getting on. How about you two go down and let the horses into the paddock while I wash up and see about some tea."
After we had finished with the horses, Fisher suggested we try out the new boomerang he had just made. It was a real beauty, and we took it down to the house dam.
Fisher took those few quick steps forward along the top of the bank and let fly. Away it went, spiralling through the air, reaching up to the peak of its flight, coming slowly around, then spinning back to fall at Fisher's feet. He bent down and picked it up and threw it again, and this time when it came back he stepped forward and caught it.
"Have a go Bob?"
"How do you hold it?"
The arms were of different lengths, and Fisher showed me how to hold it by the longer arm and give it an extra flick of the wrist as you threw it. It was also important that the flat face was down, and the curved face, giving it the lift, up.
I held it as he told me and walked up onto the top of the bank, taking those few quick steps Fisher always took, and giving it everything I had.
Away it went, spinning at an increasing speed and gaining height, in the direction of the house. Quite a good throw I though, until I heard Fisher's whisper:
As it approached the house it was still rising, but suddenly it dipped gracefully, flew in under the verandah roof, and disappeared through the kitchen window in a shower of broken glass.
Fisher and I looked at each other, the turned and bolted for the house. Harry was in the kitchen! But as we approached he came storming out, waving the boomerang in one hand.
If it's not bad enough the bloody mice eating half the house away! You trying to smash up the rest?"
He pulled back his arm and heaved the boomerang away with all his might, snarled at us, and stalked back inside.
"That's done it Fisher."
We started in after Harry to try and apologise, but as we stepped up onto the verandah there was another shattering of glass and the bedroom window exploded inwards.
"What the hell ..!" Harry roared from inside.
"Think we ought to go in Bob?"
We stood there in indecision, and Harry appeared back at the doorway, the boomerang in his hand and a really nasty glint in his eye.
"Harry!" I warned as he stepped forward across the verandah, raising his arm with the boomerang. "Don't throw it again!"
"Bob's the one it won't come back for," Fisher said.
Harry looked at the boomerang in surprise, seemed to realise who had last thrown it, and pushed it at Fisher. "Ah .., here. Take the damn thing," and, hiding a grin, he walked back inside. "And," he called, "get half a mile down the paddock before you throw it!"
But Fisher and I had had enough and followed him into the house and got to work cleaning up the mess, which seemed to please Harry, because he gave us some more jobs to do when we had finished.
One of them was to clean out the fireplace and give it a coat of white wash. It looked pretty good too, by the time we had finished, and Harry said we were working well and it seemed a pity to spoil our run, so we could scrub the kitchen floor next.
For tea, Harry, who was a good cook, served up Irish stew with pufftaloon scones, browned in the frying pan, and plenty of black tea.
"That stack of wheat falling down over the rail tracks at Speed," Harry remarked. "I see by the paper it's happening all over the country. You'd wonder where the mice could come from."
"Some of them are losing patches of hair," Fisher said. "When you pick up a bag some of the ones that run off are pretty scabby."
"Are they now? That's the plague. Be sure you don't handle them, or if you do be sure and wash your hands, and don't touch your hair. It'll all fall out, or at least give you bald patches."
Harry had been studying the medical book.
"Now listen, from now on we better use lysol in the washing water after we've been cleaning up the traps, or anything else. Can't be too careful."
Fisher nodded and began to scratch his head.
"Hey Fisher .. don't do that until you've washed."
Fisher took his hand away. "Could do with a haircut I reckon."
"Yeah. I'll give you both a cut right after tea I think."
So, when the washing up was over, Harry got the scissors and comb out and started work on Fisher's head. And it wasn't a bad job, as haircuts go in the bush.
"Don't you know, anyway, to leave a bit on the sides Harry? That close crop back and sides with the bit left on top looks like those American Indians."
"Don't be fussy. Next please."
I sat down where Fisher had been and let Harry snip happily away at my hair, and when he had finished went into the bedroom to have a look in the mirror.
Same cut. Short back and sides with a fringe standing up on top. Hell. I went back and complained about it.
"Ah well, no one'll see you in the bush. Anyway, give it a couple of weeks and no-one'll know the difference."
Sitting there by the fire I looked across at Fisher where he read by the light of the lamp. It was a sight to make you laugh. Fisher must have felt my gaze, because he looked up at me, and he did burst out laughing.
"By jove Harry," he managed, "you'd make a good shearer."
"Ahh .." Harry was disgusted. "Bloke should have let you suffer."
Next morning Harry suggested Fisher and I take in two of the draughts and bring home the new plough. "You can ride them in bareback."
"Aw, can't we have saddles?"
"Well, I suppose you can," Harry said, and grinned to himself.
He selected two quiet Clydesdale mares, and we put the winkers, collars and hames on them, wrapping the trace chains around the points of the hames, then went and got the saddles.
Harry leaned against the door post and watched us as we threw the saddles up onto the broad backs and leaned under for the girths. I caught hold of the free end and pulled it up, realising as I did so what he had been grinning at. The girth strap would not come within two feet of the buckle.
Without looking at Harry I pulled the saddle off and put it away, then climbed up bareback and turned the mare out of the stable.
"Come on Fisher."
We rode of towards Speed, but before we had reached the town we decided it was less painful to get off and lead them.
But on the way home with the plough it was much easier. I sat on the seat and drove, and Fisher perched himself on the plough with a bag for a seat, and produced his mouth organ. We would not have changed places with the King of England.
Fisher kept up with a round of songs, and I kept time with my foot on the rest. Every now and then a rabbit would pop up from the side of the road and dash across in front of us, or, as they sometimes did, just sit up on their hind legs and wait for us to pass. Magpies were warbling in the trees, and the air was soft and warm with the January sun.
It made you want to burst into song, and when Fisher struck up with Tipperary, I joined in and gave it all I had, the nine miles home passing all too quickly.
Harry was waiting for us when we got back. We unhooked the plough at the machinery shed and took the horses back to the stable, running over them quickly with the curry comb, taking particular care to watch the skin around their shoulder where the collar sat. If the skin twitched at all as the comb passed over it, you bathed the area in salt water, because a twitch showed the skin was tender, and unless you hardened it with salt water it would rub and become a sore. This was the reason you always scraped the material inside the collars after work, taking off the layer of gathered sweat and dirt, and each draught had its own collar, which was fitted to its neck and shoulders.
Harry was going over the new plough when we walked back to him. "That bag on the back's spare shares Harry. Mr Thrower said to tell you."
We stood there, the sun setting in the western sky, edging the clouds with gold, and simply admired our new, seven furrow, stump jump plough. It was our hope of the future in our efforts to make the most of this semi-desert country which could grow wheat so abundantly.
As the brown of the evening settled across the paddocks and the bush, we turned for the house to start the tea and light the evening fire, the calm time of gloaming when the sounds for miles around come softly, but clearly, to our ears.
The dying rattle of the jackasses down in the big sugar gum by the gate. "cook-cook-cook .." before they ruffled up feathers for the night, shaking out the downy quilt and sinking their heads into it.
A lonely bullock, away in some distant paddock, bellowed three times. A quiet time. A time for easing hard worked limbs, letting a slackness into muscles and walking slowly, the sound of horses snuffling in the feed troughs.
A pensive time of thinking back or thinking forward. Of George, in a foreign land fighting a foreign war.
There was a letter from him in the mail we had brought home, and a postcard with it of an English village. A little bridge amongst thatched cottages, a peaceful, fairytale scene of a land that knew no distance and no desert, but a land which had sent its sons to this land where distance and desert were the stuff of which life was made.
George was well, he wrote. He had been on leave, and, he said very tactfully, he hoped we had had a good harvest, and when we received the first payment on the wheat perhaps we could spare him a few quid? Even a soldier wanted a bit of spending money on leave.
Harry put the letter down. "Have to work out what spare cash we'll have. Shouldn't be long before the bank lets us know the wheat pool's made a payment."
There was a letter from Bill as well. He was coming back anyway. Olga was going back to her home in Gippsland, and could we meet him on the Monday night train? Mother and Rupe would be staying on with Emma and Rudie, and Wally was getting his holidays shortly and wanted to drive the new plough when we started to fallow.
When the midnight train came in Bill was standing in the carriage door with Olga, and we ran alongside until the train stopped, just time for a quick kiss each for Olga, and the train was off again into the night.
"Aw well," sighed Bill, a last wave to the night where the train had gone. "Back to the scrub." And picking up his battered suitcase led the way round to the buggy.
He told us a little of the news on the way home. Emma and Rudie getting along well on the fruit block, and Carrie, our niece, a beautiful baby they all adored. But we were all tired, and it wasn't until Breakfast next morning that Bill relaxed and expanded on his holiday.
"Yes," he said. "I reckon Mildura is a wonderful place. No worries about droughts there with all that irrigation."
"Well, you saw it all when we were carting five-foot for the Merbein pumping station in the drought," Harry said. "Has it changed so much?"
"Well ..it's not that Harry. But when you're working as hard as we were then you don't get much time to really look around. I had a chance to see things this time. There's no doubt these Chaffey brothers really started something when they came out from California and secured that land at Mildura from the Victorian Government to start a dried fruit settlement. They certainly had the know- how.
"And look at the town. Why, that place is beautifully laid out. You've got numbered streets crossing the avenues, and that Deacon Avenue with the plantation down the centre and those palm and gum trees in lawns!" Bill shook his head and took a breath. "Well, it gives a man a chance to breathe. You can feel the space."
"Surveyed by the Chaffeys on Californian lines," Harry said. "Not like these country towns surveyed in the English style. Some of those streets are so darned narrow you'd reckon they were stuck for room."
"That's right," Bill agreed, wanting to get back into his eulogy. "Langtree Avenue, Orange Avenue, Madden Avenue, Lime Avenue .."
"Hold on Bill, take your time."
Bill shook his head. "You know what? If we make a bit of money here I'd like to go to Mildura and have a go at that irrigation country one of these days."
Bill had certainly had a holiday, and went on to tell us how the Chaffeys had even designed their own type of pump to lift the water from the Murray River when they found Australia did not have the pumps to do the job they needed done.
And then they had run short of money and it seemed as though they would have to abandon the whole project. They had begun issuing chits, or notes, as a promise to pay, and this was all their employees had to use at the shops.
But the shopkeepers honoured the chits and supplied the goods, holding them until the Chaffeys sold the land they had prepared for irrigation to the new settlers and could redeem them.
"And," Bill went on, full of enthusiasm, "these men from the United States of America did not make a large profit. But they will always be remembered because they proved that some of the finest sultanas and raisins in the world, not to mention oranges, lemons and wine grapes, could be grown on land that before they came and irrigated, would hardly support a lizard to the acre."
Harry had cleared the table while Bill was talking, and now started the dishes with Fisher and I drying. But brother Bill was oblivious to this. He just poured himself another cup of tea and went on talking.
"Yes, and Merbein's a good little town too. Needs a pub though. All the settlers drive into Mildura of a Saturday to do their shopping because they have the Working Man's Club and the Settler's Club."
"Which one did you see most of?" Harry asked.
"Why, the Worker's of course. Damn nice club, and the plans they have for the new bar! Jove, when it's built it'll be the longest bar in the world. Two hundred .." He slipped a notebook from his coat and glanced at it. "Yes, two hundred and eighty seven feet long!"
"Well, all I can say," Harry commented. "As well as being a good place for citrus, it must also be a darned good drinking place."
"Well, yes. That's true. The beer tasted extra good to me." Bill shook his head at the memory. "Yes, you can get a decent sort of thirst up in Mildura.
Harry turned back to the washing up. "You can get a decent sort of thirst up right here washing up at the sink."
Bill let that go past him. "Did I mention Mother bought a township block at Merbein?"
"No." Harry was surprised. "How?"
He knew best of all our financial situation.
"Well a Mr Rose at Merbein, who's got a dried fruit block, wanted to sell the township block to buy a draught horse. He was talking to Rudie about it one evening, so Mother made a deal with him. Level swap for one of our draughts."
Harry considered a moment. Yeah. Yeah, I reckon Prince would be an ideal horse for a single furrow plough working 'round a fruit block."
"Have to get him off by rail as soon as we can." He turned to the window, frowning. "Thought there was a bit of a draught. What happened to the window?"
"Bit of an accident," Harry said.
Bill nodded and finished his cup of tea, then frowned and looked through the remains of the wall into the bedroom. "Window in there's gone too."
"Yairs," Harry said slowly. "That was another accident." He tried to keep a straight face, but suddenly gave way and laughed.
"What's the joke?"
"Well," said Harry, stifling his laughter. It's all part of a lesson in not doing your block when you've got a boomerang in your hand."
He turned back to the sink, his body shaking with laughter, and Fisher and I joined in.
Bill watched us all a moment, then slowly shook his head. "What you blokes need is a damned good holiday."
Later on when we were inspecting the new plough again with Bill, he seemed to spend a lot of time glancing up at Fisher and I.
"I've been meaning to ask," he said at last, "Who cut your hair?"
"Harry did!" we chorused.
"Never seen a haircut like that before," he said, and he started laughing.
"It's not as bad as all that!" Harry protested.
But Bill was holding his side with laughter now. "Look like .., like a couple of Red Indians!"
"Come on," said Harry. "I reckon you better get back to work. That holiday didn't do you any good."
There was superphosphate to be carted back from Speed ready for the next sowing, and then in the mail one day there was a note from our bank manager telling us the first payment from the wheat pool had been credited to our account.
"Mmmm," Bill said, pleased. "Seems a pretty large amount."
That night after tea Harry sat down at the table and started on a balance sheet. He made it up from the various amounts of the promisory notes we had made out against this advance.
"Anything we haven't got down Bill?" he asked after he had set out the amounts noted down in his books.
"Ah, yes," said Bill. "Don't forget Jack Thrower. I remember I borrowed ten pounds off him to pay some freight, and there was another time he let me have five."
"Hold on Bill. Why didn't you put it down as you borrowed it?"
Bill held up a hand. "No need for that. I never forget. Tell you to the penny what I borrow."
"Well," said Harry doubtfully, studying a sheet of paper. "Jack Thrower's account is here and he's got you down for two lots of ten and three fives."
Bill frowned and thought for a while. "By jove yes. I think he's right too." He took the account from Harry. "Hah .. Mmmmm .. Yeah, forgot about that time .. He went through and explained what each amount had been for. "Can't make out how I didn't recall them." He handed the account back to Harry. "Ah well, you can't expect a man to remember everything, can you?"
"No, you can't. But I wish you'd make a note of these things and not try and keep them in your head."
Bill looked rather hurt by this remark and stood up. "Goodnight all. I'm off to bed."
But it was nearly eleven before Harry had finished. "Well, that's about it. We'll just about keep our heads above water."
At breakfast the next morning Bill brought up the subject of our holiday, but Harry shook his head. "Not until the mice ease off and we've had the papering done so Mother can come back."
Fisher rubbed his hands along his thighs, embarrassed. "Would you mind if I didn't go up to Merbein with you? Like t' go over to Jeparit and see Mum and the kids."
"Fine," said Harry. "And by the way, there's something we want to show you a bit later on. How about you and Bob going down and bringing the horses in?"
On the way to get them Fisher told me he was worried about his mother. "You know Bob."
"Well, you better get off as quick as you can. But hurry back mate, we'll miss you while you're away."
The horses were easy to gather, and we drove them up to the stable. They were in beautiful condition. Chester's roan foal that had been sired by Pa Jennings' stallion was now rising two years old, and had grown into a fine looking animal. He had been gelded, but not broken, and possessed the same proud head as his mother. He stood about fourteen hands, deep in the chest and clean legged, dappled all over.
Bill and Harry were at the stable when we brought the horses in. They waited until they had settled down, then went across to Roan, Chester's foal, and patted him.
"Come over here a minute."
"Yes Bill? What's up?"
"Never had a hack to call your own, have you?"
Fisher shook his head.
"Well you have now. Roan's yours. You'll have to break him .."
"But, but .." Fisher was stunned.
"But nothing. He's yours. You own him."
Fisher had always admired Roan, and he turned now, his large eyes wider than they had ever been, and reached out to the horse, slipping a hand over his neck and stroking him.
"Yes," said Bill, "you'll have to break him alright. Won't let me near his back."
"Me either," said Harry.
I knew too. One day I had slipped onto him, but he had sent me flying, then turned around and looked at me as though to say, "and don't try that again." I didn't.
"Reckon you can manage the job Fisher?"
Fisher nodded, and taking his arm from around Roan's neck, slipped up onto his back.
Roan stiffened. He spread out his legs and lowered his head.
"You're wonderful," Fisher said softly, running a hand down Roan's neck. "You're my horse."
A tremor ran through Roan's body, then suddenly the tension went out of him and he stepped forward around the yard with Fisher on his back.
He was Fisher's horse alright.
But Fisher didn't have it all so easy. The day he put the saddle on Roan there was a disagreement between them. "He's a beaut horse Bob," Fisher said, grinning as he picked himself up from the ground, and climbed back into the saddle. He was tossed out of it again, repeating the performance until Roan reckoned he had had enough and cantered off down the paddock with his master riding high and proud in the saddle.
They had reached an understanding.
The mice now began disappearing as quickly as they had come, and with Harry and I helping Mr Anderson started on the re-papering. While he was there we had him add a bathroom to the house. No more dragging tubs over to the men's hut for a bath now.
One day there was a letter for Fisher in the mail. "Open it up for me will you Harry?"
"No Fisher. You open it."
Fisher slowly slit the envelope and took the letter out, reading through it, then handing it to Harry.
It was a letter of thanks from the Crown Law Department, and contained a cheque for £25 made payable to Fisher Mark for his assistance to the police.
Fisher shook his head. "I can't take that!"
"Like hell you can't," said Bill.
Harry glanced through the letter and handed it back to him. "Look Fisher, you accept it. If you like you can come into Speed with me one day and open an account at the bank. That way you'll always have a nest egg put by for a rainy day."
Fisher though about it a moment, then nodded, "Alright Harry, I'll do that."
At the end of February, Mother returned, leaving Rupe at Merbein, and Fisher made ready to leave for Jeparit.
Mounted on Roan he sat patiently while Bill gave him directions for the journey. How to make through to Lascelles, across to Hopetoun, then on to Rainbow and so to Jeparit. As he talked he drew a plan in the sand, and Fisher watched and nodded.
But I could see it was like trying to tell a spur- winged plover in Siberia how to follow a route to her nesting place in the Mallee of Victoria.
I looked up at Fisher and winked.
He smiled. "I'll be back before the cropping starts," and lifting a hand turned and rode away.
I knew the road to Jeparit would be as direct across country as the plover flies from Siberia to Australia, and the thought came to me:
Your home is where your heart is,
No matter what it may be,
Perhaps a lovely mansion,
Or a shack under a big gum tree.
and I watched my friend ride away into the distance.
"Going to miss him," said Bill. "Anyway, now that Mother's home, it's about time you and Harry got away for your holiday at Merbein.
So clothes were packed in cases, and one night a little later we caught the midnight train.
Mildura ahead! We had been looking forward to this, and as the sun rose from the horizon on a crisp March morning, we steamed into the irrigation country of Irymple.
It was difficult to believe after the hot dry lands of the wheat country we had left only the night before. These green, green acres where water was plentiful, the orderly rows of the grapevines, and the wonderful citrus groves. Even the air, although the day was coming in hot, had a coolness from the irrigated land that was quite strange to us. When we stepped down from the train at the Mildura station, we could see the big gums standing on the banks of the Murray River, and the glisten of the morning sun on the water.
"You just forget about things like that at Speed," Harry said. "You just forget all about such things."
Rudie hurried along the platform to us. "Good day. How are you?"
"Jove Rudie, it's good to see you after so long. You gave Bill a great time!"
"Your turn now."
We drove along the river road to Merbein, and another round of greetings with Emma and our little niece Carrie. She was toddling now, and I picked her up and held her in my arms as we talked, until Emma pointed out she was asleep and took her to her cot.
Since we had last been there the orange trees had grown into nice sized trees, and the rows of grapes between them were in their first year of bearing. It was just a light crop, but Rudie had built a drying rack, and intended drying them on the property.
After a look around we came back and sat in the house, greeting Rupe when he came home, and then Wally.
The next day we went for a walk up to the little township of Merbein to have a look at the block of land Mother had traded Prince for, then met Mr Rose. He said he was very pleased with the bargain as Prince was turning into a good, single furrow plough house. The way he whinnied and carried on when we walk up to him, we were sure the big Clydesdale knew us.
He certainly looked magnificent in front of that plough which his huge bulk made look so insignificant.
After lunch we walked down to the winery on the high cliffs above the river, with long views across into New South Wales, and, about six miles as the crow flies, to Mildura.
We had our swimming trunks and towels with us, and walked along the river bank to the Merbein pumping station, going swimming where the big suction pipes entered the water. The same station we had carted wood to in 1914.
Jove it was good. Even though the temperature was a hundred degrees in the shade, you never really noticed it with all that water there to swim in.
"This is the life alright," Harry said, stretched out on the sand to sunbathe.
This river was the life stream that gave the low rainfall land the beautiful vineyards and orange groves, where so many people could earn a living from so small an amount of land. The average block was only fifteen or twenty acres.
"Well," said Harry, "I suppose we better be thinking of getting back Bob."
"Hey! Don't get dressed," Rupe called. "Have a swim with us."
He and Wally came weaving along the bank on Wally's bike and tumbled off beside us.
"No. I've had enough," said Harry.
"Oh well," said Rupe, stripping down to his togs and diving in, swimming a few strokes before coming back onto the bank. "Pity about that," and before we could moved he had a wiped a handful of mud down our backs.
"Y' young .." Harry made a wild grab for him, but Rupe was off and swimming.
I went in after him, followed by Wally and Harry, determined to catch and push him under, but that black bobbing head was drawing away from me as the arms pulled him forward in that quick, overarm stroke.
No you don't! I though, and followed steadily after him, then realised the water was moving and carrying us along with it. I could see the gum trees on the New South Wales side going past quite swiftly, and glancing back at the Victorian bank realised we had passed the point of no return.
Behind me Wally called out to keep swimming. "Don't fight the current. Just keep swimming with it! We'll get to the other side."
Looking ahead I could see Rupe swimming for the New South Wales bank, but the current was carrying him downstream awfully quickly.
Then a whirlpool grabbed me and spun me around, and I could see Harry diagonally across behind Wally, and for a moment I was gripped by fear. The banks looked so far away, and the current was so strong.
"Keep swimming!" Wally called, sensing my panic. "You'll be right."
And with the sound of his confident voice in my ears I felt the panic leave, and began to enjoy the deep pleasure of being raced along by the current, a sense of buoyancy out here in the deep water, and a strange feeling of security. You could stay out here forever, letting Old Man River carry you along, tossing your body as he felt inclined.
Ahead I could see Rupe's black head moving closer to the bank, and I doubled my efforts to catch him, until suddenly I realised my speed had slowed and I was in the backwater, only twenty yards or so from the bank.
Ahead of me Rupe reached up and caught hold of the exposed root of an old tree and hauled himself up onto the bank, turning and grinning down at us as we followed.
"That got you in!" Rupe called gleefully, dancing away from us.
But I was tired, too tired to even consider going after brother Rupert, and just sat down to catch my breath, joined by the other two.
Rupe, realising we were not going to chase him, came and stood near us. "You blokes are in pretty poor condition. Puffing over a little swim like that."
"Look here," Harry said. "You're mad Rupe. Don't you go doing anything like that ever again. We could all have downed. A man only has to get cramp out there and it'd be the end."
Rupe was only half convinced. "Yair, I suppose so. But if you start from one bend and keep swimming you always come out on the opposite bend. It's people who try and fight the current, or get halfway then try and swim back, who get into trouble."
"Back! Hell," said Harry, "of course we've got to get back. Right now I don't feel as though I could swim another stroke."
"Well, there's no hurry," Wally said, and so we just lay there soaking up the sun until Rupe roused us.
"Come on you lot. We don't want to be here all night."
"Ah well, guess we better get a move on."
"Have to walk back up the bank a way if we want to swim across to the pumps," Rupe said.
We walked back along the edge of the water until we came to the bend above the pumps, then sat down and had another spell.
"What's it feel like being in New South Wales Bob?" Wally asked.
"Well, no different that I can see."
"As a matter of fact," Harry said, "as soon as you step into the water on the Victoria side you've crossed the border."
"I though the border was in the middle of the river?"
"No. New South Wales pegged their boundary right along the Victoria bank."
"Aw, that's not fair!" Rupe protested. "They don't hardly even use the river. Anyway, what right have they got to own it?"
Harry shrugged. "They were the first state in Australia, so they just helped themselves. Of course, they couldn't do that now we're a Commonwealth."
"What's the difference?" asked Rupe, apparently unaware he was getting into a history lesson.
"Well, when we were separate states we were all more or less on our own. Even charged import duties to cross state borders. You can even see the old Customs House at Mildura where they collected the duties, same as at Swan Hill, Echuca, Yarrawonga, Albury and all the rest of the big river towns. It's only since Federation that free trade's come in and you can go where you want from state to state. Suppose it's the same with the river. While they had the chance they took it."
"Seems to me they should have had this Federation all the time," Rupe said.
"Yeah. Would have been more sense, wouldn't it," Harry agreed.
"Does this river create boundaries,
To those born in this land?
We only know our heritage,
And won't be pushed around.
Do they want to fence the heavens?
Do they want to fence the stars?
Denying man the privilege,
Of looking up at mars?
(And this is just between us,
do they want to blot out Venus?)
This river is God's blessing,
to all the sons of man,
who are prepared to sweat and toil,
to take this water to the soil,
and win treasures from the land."
"Come on!" shouted Rupe. "I'll race you back," and in he dived.
To me it looked far enough across just to make a swim of it, without complicating the situation by trying to race. But I dived in after Rupe and Wally, then Harry followed.
Rupe swan strongly out into the current, putting on a turn of speed, taking his breath from under his armpits in the favoured crawl stroke. I was just about to copy him when I heard Wally shout from behind.
"Look out! Logs!"
Treading water I looked quickly around and saw the big log in mid-stream, rolling as it came.
"Yell out to Rupe!"
Rupe was swimming right into the path of it! "Rupe! Logs! Logs!" But he didn't hear me.
Wally was yelling too. He was a good swimmer and came up with me and we swam together, but Rupe was a good thirty feet ahead, and that log was going to hit him.
It was right in mid-stream and the log rolled over him, passing on, but leaving no sign of our young brother.
As Wally shouted, Rupe's head bobbed up, but his arms did not break the surface, and the head sank slowly out of sight.
We swam desperately, and Wally pulled away from me, and just ahead of him Rupe's head bobbed up again, and again disappeared, and Wally dived.
He came up a moment later with Rupe in his arms. "Quick," he gasped. "Hold him."
I reached out a hand and Wally twisted his body underneath Rupe, floating with Rupe's head on his chest.
"Help support me!" Wally gasped. "Got to keep his head up!"
Blood was gushing from a deep cut in the back of Rupe's head.
"Swim for the bank," Harry gasped as he came up.
"I can't! Current's too strong!"
All we could do was let it carry us.
"I'll push," Harry said, moving to the downstream side of us.
The white cliffs and the big river gums seemed to be rushing by as we were swept along. Past the pumps, still in mid-stream, the bank seeming to move further away as we battled silently to make some progress towards it.
As we were swept down towards the winery I could see we were being pushed towards the cliffs on which it was built. If only we could get into the backwater there we would have a chance.
"Try!" Harry demanded, and we put everything we could into our efforts.
Exhaustion, I found then, is overcome by fear and the determination to live, and with a supreme effort we struggled from the current's grasp and were suddenly in the calm of the backwater. A moment later we found the bottom with our feet and dragged Rupe up onto the bank below the winery, nearly half a mile downstream from where we had intended to land.
"Is he ..?"
"He's breathing." Harry pulled Rupe around so his head was facing the water and lower than the rest of his body, and began applying artificial resuscitation, and suddenly Rupe vomited water, and he began gasping.
"Thank God .."
The cut on the back of his head was still bleeding badly, and Wally took his trunks off and wrapped them around Rupe's head. Tightening them against the cut with his belt, and finally stopping the bleeding.
Rupe tried to move, and we helped him onto his back and sat him up, looking very pale and sorry for himself.
"Well, this is a bloody nice how-do-you-do," Wally said.
"Come on. I'll get Rupe back to Em and Rudie's," Harry said. "You two go on back to the pumping station and get our clothes and the bike."
"Well, that's all-alright, f-for you!," Wally stuttered, upset. "B-but, how, how, the hell d'you ex-ex-expect me to hide myself?"
"Aw, don't worry," Harry said. "You've got nothing to hide."
Wally looked down at himself then back to Harry, not sure how to take it, and wondering if his manhood had been questioned.
"Look, don't worry," Harry encouraged. "Even if you happen to run into someone you can always jump into the river and sit down."
Wally looked at Harry, not convinced it was as easy as that, but Harry was starting away with Rupe.
"I'm alright anyway," Rupe said, trying a grin.
"Come on .." Harry put an arm around him. "We'll get you back to the house and have a look at that cut."
It was closer by a quarter of a mile from here than the pumping station.
We went off upstream, climbing over the exposed roots and the dead branches of the gum trees, Wally keeping a sharp lookout for other people. There was one chap holding a rod, but he only raised eyebrows and then went back to fishing.
Back at the pumping station we found Jack Shearer, an engineer at the pumps. Standing near our clothes. He was a kindly, gray-haired old man, and looked up in relief when he heard us.
"Getting a bit worried. Saw the clothes and the bike and wondered if something had happened. She can be a dangerous river for a swimmer if you don't know her." He pointed out into the mainstream. "Strong current on a rising river gives them whirlpools, and you've got to be careful of the odd big log that comes down."
"By jove yes," Wally agreed, his confidence restored by a pair of pants, and he told Mr Shearer what had happened to Rupe.
The old man ran his fingers through his hair and shook his head. "I did sort of wonder why you didn't have any trunks on Wally. But you know, you're mad risking a swim across the Murray. It's not worth it."
"No, it's not," Wally agreed. "Anyway, thanks for keeping an eye on our clothes. Better get home and see how he is now."
When we arrived Emma had clipped the hair away from around the wound and was bathing it. The cut was nearly two inches long, and looked as though it should be stitched. But after bathing it Emma and Harry pressed the flesh together and used adhesive tape to hold the edges together.
"It's a wonder you weren't all drowned," Rudie said during tea that night.
"I suppose we well might have been," Harry admitted soberly.
"Yes," Rupe said. "They're all such rotten swimmers they could drown in a bath."
Wally stood up. "Well, I can see you're alright again. Anyway, time for me to get off and do some dough punching." He looked at Rupe. "Actually, I reckon I ought to give you one on the nose before I go."
"That," Harry said, "wouldn't be a bad idea at all."
Wally dropped a hand affectionately on Rupe's shoulder. "Right then. I'll see you all in the morning."
Picking grapes and helping Rudie around the block kept us busy for the rest of the week, and on the Sunday Harry and I went for a drive into Mildura to have a look around, returning to Merbein just before dark.
The following week we spent picking again, and spreading the grapes on the drying rack. You could not help eating them while you picked, and the weather being hot you drank a lot of water too, and after a time you realised you were getting a bit of a tummy-ache, and you learned the less of all things in moderation the hard way.
After the three weeks our holiday was over, and we said goodbye to Emma, Rudie, Carrie, Rupe and Wally, and got back onto the train for Speed.
Bill was at the station to meet us. He had the hooded buggy with the hood down, but on the way home we had to stop and erect it as warm rain came in from the north.
But driving through the night towards home, we did not mind. It was March, and rain promised a good season to come.
Mother was asleep in the old armchair by the fire when we arrived home, the two dogs lying at her feet. Harry woke her with a light kiss on her forehead. "You're home. Thank God. I worry when you're away. Silly of me, isn't it?"
Her hair was turning grey now, and you noticed with a shock after three weeks away the strands of white encroaching on the light brown of her youth.
There was a letter for her from Emma, and while she read it we sat around eating grapes from the case Bill carried in from the buggy, and yarning. It was nearly sunrise before we went off to bed, and late the next morning before Harry woke us with a cup of tea.
While we had been away, Bill and Dick McNally had been busy getting ready for cropping, and had everything prepared for the sowing. And so, fresh from our holiday on the Murray, we were ready to buckle down to work again.
Starting the sowing, Harry and I drove the two drills, while Bill kept ahead of us with the stump jump harrows, walking tirelessly behind them, day after day.
And then came trouble.
The mice still left began to eat the sown wheat from the ground, and on making a close inspection of the land we had sown, we discovered they had been following the drill marks and burrowing down to each grain.
"Darn it!" Bill cursed. "Who says mice haven't any brains? They've worked out the grain is sown in rows, and they even seems to know how far apart they are!"
"But all the work we've done?"
"Forget it!" Bill said savagely. "It wasn't worth the effort. How the hell are we going to beat them? We'll have to stop sowing or the little buggers'll eat the lot!"
Bill, Harry, Dick McNally and I sat down on the running board of the drill was driving, and gazed back over the ground we had sown.
This was serious, and there was no way we could think of beating it.
"Who's that?" Bill asked, looking up towards the house. There was a horse and rider coming down towards us.
We watched as the horse approached.
"That's Fisher on Roan," Harry said suddenly, and lifted a hand in a wave.
Fisher cantered down to us, and jove he looked well, and Roan had been groomed until his coat shone, and his tail was plaited and tied up with a ribbon as though he were being entered in the Royal Show.
"How are things at Jeparit?"
"Aw, not bad Harry. No problems now."
Bill rubbed the side of his face with his hand and shook his head. "Glad to hear someone doesn't have problems, because we've got a darned big one."
Fisher slipped off Roan and tied him to the wheel of the drill, running his hand along the sleek neck as the horse muzzled him affectionately. "What's up Bill?"
"Damn mice again. Might not be many left, but come and have a look at this."
He showed Fisher what the mice had been up to, ending with a kick of disgust at our well-worked soil.
Fisher considered the small drill rows, then knelt down and ran his nose along almost on the ground as though he were trying to smell something.
We watched, intrigued, as he slowly brushed his hands across the rows in front of him until the earth was smooth, then tried to trace new rows with his fingers.
"How about," he said thoughtfully, then looked up and grinned. "How about tying mallee bushes on the running board to brush out the drill rows? That will confuse them so they won't know exactly where to dig." He poked holes at random in the smoothed over dirt. "See what I mean?"
"By jove!" Bill was quite excited. "I think you're right Fisher. "Let's give it a try!"
"I'll go back and get an axe," Fisher said, untying Roan and mounting.
"Hang on," Dick McNally called, and climbed up behind him. "I'll give you a hand."
They came back in half an hour or so with mallee bushes and fencing wire, and we tied the bushes on behind the drill.
"Do a round before we knock off Bob. We'll come back in the morning and see just how good this idea is."
During the evening meal Fisher told us of his holiday, and we discussed whether his idea would beat the mice. Bill could hardly wait for breakfast to end next morning so we could get off and see how it had worked out.
We all walked down. It was not worth yoking the teams if the mallee bush trick had not worked.
Bill stopped when we came to the start of the brush marks. "This is where you started Bob." He rubbed his chin with his hand. "Well, what d' you reckon?"
We spread out across the drill span and walked along it, and just as Fisher had predicted, the mouse holes, even and methodical along the unbrushed drill rows, suddenly became random, a confused pecking of the soil.
"By jove," Bill muttered, hopeful and impressed.
The further we walked the less holes there were, and it soon became apparent they had been frustrated, then frantic, and had finally given it away altogether.
Bill stopped and turned, a big grin spread right across his face. "Fisher me boy, you're a bloody marvel! You should be with the Agricultural Department!" And he grabbed hold of Fisher and began to do a dance right out there in the paddock.
So we were able to go back to the stable and yoke up, and while we were harrowing and sowing, Fisher and Dick McNally cut a supply of mallee bushes, and after every three or four rows we tied a new lot behind. And no fear of running out of them. We had hundreds of acres of mallee bush to the north. An almost endless supply.
One evening Charlie McDougall called in with our mail and the news that the United States of America had declared war on Germany.
"What!" Bill asked in surprise.
"Says here the President of the United States officially declared war on the sixth of April," Charlie said, and handed the paper to Bill.
Bill took it and read the declaration. "Yeah, well they've been a bloody long time about it."
We sat around the table and discussed the news and the effect it would have on the war, agreeing that now Germany had another country to fight, and the bulk of world opinion against her, she would certainly be defeated.
But how much longer the conflict would last; how much longer this awful sacrifice of young men's lives would continue, this endless, senseless slaughter just to appease the ambitions of a few senseless, stupid, men. These were the questions we could not even begin to answer.
President Wilson of the USA said the world must be made safe for democracy, its peace no longer endangered by autocratic governments backed by organised force, controlled wholly by their will and not the will of the people.
There was also news from the Russian front in the paper. But this was not good. It seemed the Russian soldiers were sick and tired of their fight against the Germans. Ill-equipped and badly clothed they had lost the will to continue, and although the Western powers helped to overcome her deficiencies in equipment, they were handicapped by a defensive system of transportation in moving men and munitions. A chaotic situation had developed.
Their men suffered badly from war weariness, and desertion was a mass movement, sometimes whole units refusing to fight. Their thoughts were for one thing only, that elusive quality, peace.
This was bad news for us because it meant the Germans could move their soldiers from the Russian front once there was no longer a threat in that area, and hurl them against the Allied troops on the western front.
"Still," Harry sighed. "There's not much we can do about it except go on and grow the grain they need so badly."
"Yes, they've got to have food," Bill agreed.
And so we went on with the sowing.
Wally came home a little later for his holidays, and spent them working up a paddock for fallow with the new stump jump plough.
Jove it did a good job. Pulled a lot of the stumps right out of the ground. Fisher took to following behind the plough and putting the stumps into little heaps, so that when we finished the seeding we could throw them onto a cart without having to go emu bobbing for them all over the paddock.
By now the brown plover had returned, and you could watch them moving about the paddocks selecting nesting sites.
Rains came. Good, steady, soaking, warm rain, and the whole countryside sprang into new life. Paddocks greening with new oat and wheat shoots, and outside the fences the natural grasses and vast profusion of the wildflowers. Those pretty waxen flowers we called everlastings, and the smell of the fresh earth and her abundance made you feel glad you were born in Australia and were a part of this great land.
As the wheat grew I saw signs of kangaroos where they had come in to eat the crop close to the north boundary. And every now and then you would catch sight of emus; big birds who simply stepped over the fences to enjoy a nibble at the new shoots.
I knew Bill saw them, but he never mentioned it.
Once, Wally brought the subject up at tea time, and Bill just looked up and smiled. "Well, Wally, if we can't afford to let the damn emus and kangaroos enjoy a little of God's blessing, then we should give the game away and go and get a job in the city."
Chapter 13 | Contents | Chapter 15